Eyes of the World: An interview with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter
In Celebration of Hunter’s 78th Birthday at this time. My 2015 (?) interview. An edited model ran on WSJ.com as part of a preview for Hunter’s Metropolis Winery exhibits.
Robert Hunter was a non-performing member of the Grateful Dead, as necessary as anybody else to the group’s musical legacy. A grasp lyricist, Hunter wrote the words to nearly each Jerry Garcia music, together with a lot of the band’s best-loved songs, including “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” ”China Cat Sunflower,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,”“Wharf Rat,” and “Dire Wolf.”
Lots of Hunter’s best songs tell novelistic tales in just some pages value of verse. His work has all the time been lyrically formidable, deeply poetic and concurrently redolent of each fantasy worlds and toes-in-the-mud Americana. It’s inconceivable to imagine the Grateful Dead with out him.
How did your very distinctive working relationship with Jerry Garcia begin and when did you understand his phrases and your music went together so superbly?
That was once we have been 18 and 19 respectively; he was a yr youthful than I. We started a people duet referred to as Bob and Jerry. We have been doing our people factor and moved into old-timey music and bluegrass. I sort of dropped out when it moved on to the subsequent part, jug bands. He handed me a jug and stated, “You want to play this?” and I couldn’t get a tone out of it. I acquired into writing lyrics simply to carry out myself. I had written “Alligator,” “China Cat Sunflower,” “St. Stephen,” and I was enjoying them at events, so I had something to impress the ladies with.
Then I moved to New Mexico and it occurred to me to ship the lyrics to those songs to Jerry because the Dead had shaped. And he wrote again and stated, “Why don’t you come back to California and be our lyricist?” So I hitchhiked back to San Francisco and met up with them in Rio Nido. They have been working on “Dark Star” and I wrote the lyrics to it proper then. It simply started working immediately. Everybody was glad to have a lyricist at work because they weren’t doing much writing themselves.
Did these unique songs you wrote and have been performing have any resemblance to the versions we know, or did Jerry write new songs with the same lyrics?
Once Jerry obtained his palms on one thing, it morphed , and he’s ever such a greater composer than I – and I’m not dangerous. I’ve put out some data and I’d say a few of my songs get up, but they aren’t at the similar degree, really, as a result of Jerry is a wonderful composer.
Did Jerry ever write lyrics?
No. He wrote a verse for “The Other One” – the “you know he had to die” verse – but that’s about it. I consider Jerry would have been able to it had he chosen to open his heart and soul to individuals by way of phrases as well as by means of guitar. Jerry was so sensible that something that he tackled, he might have completed nicely.
As the band turned what they turned and Jerry turned an icon, your phrases turned the public’s vision of his vision. When individuals quoted him, they quoted you, which is pretty uncommon. Did you ever speak about that?
No, we didn’t actually. The final time I ever spoke to Jerry, he referred to as me a few week or two before he died. We have been getting a writing session collectively. Wanting back, the dialog was slightly strange on his part. He began complimenting me, which is one thing he had by no means executed earlier than. He stated, “Your words never stuck in my throat.” And I assumed, “What? This is coming from Jerry?” Because we took each other 100 % without any consideration. It just wasn’t how we spoke to at least one another and boy…
It’s like he was saying goodbye.
He undoubtedly was, as a result of speaking like that was just not Jerry’s nature. Usually, I’d give him a brand new batch of songs and he’d say, “Oh crap, Hunter!” [laughs] He’d be indignant as a result of it meant he needed to work. He stated in an interview once that he’d slightly sit and toss playing cards into a hat than write a music.
How did the collaboration usually work? Music first? Lyrics first? Sitting collectively and hashing out a music?
Most of the time, it was lyrics first. I might give certain songs to him. About every year, I might also put songs right into a file referred to as “Can You Dig This?” – the higher of the lyrics that I’d come up with. I’d put it in there for any of the blokes in the band that needed to put in writing to select by means of. Jerry would take most of these, and Weir would decide a pair out. Occasionally, Jerry would supply a written tune to me.
Can you consider any examples where Jerry wrote the melody first and also you added lyrics?
“Foolish Heart” happened like that. And the band just about wrote the music for “Uncle John’s Band” together first. I might typically work with the band whereas they have been creating one thing – “Ramble On Rose” was a type of. I’d get a verse for them to add as they have been working it out, and then write more. In that context, I might truly work with the band, which happened fairly a bit for the first couple of years.
Or I might hear Jerry simply jamming on one thing good – a variety of that stuff would just evaporate if someone didn’t grab it. Like one time he was sitting at a piano enjoying a simple four-chord structure that I assumed was really a candy factor. I turned on the tape recorder and captured it. Later I advised him that I’d been engaged on that construction and I had something for it, and he stated, “Oh, that’s not complete. That was just an idea.” So I stated, “Well, take these lyrics and try it out” – and that was “So Many Roads.” Typically you needed to sneak up on Jerry to get a tune out of him.
Was the method comparable on extra difficult instrumental songs like “Terrapin Station,” the place becoming lyrics to music just seems extra difficult?
Properly, there’s just a little story behind that. It was a stormy day trip at my house at China Camp, which is on the San Pablo Bay [in Marin County]. There was an ideal storm outdoors and I was feeling actually energized by taking a look at it outdoors the windows. I used to be just sitting at typewriter and I put a bit of paper in and typed “Terrapin Station.”
Then I assumed, “Okay, what is this about? Oh, appeal to the muse.” And then: “Let my inspiration flow in token lines suggesting rhythm that will not forsake me until my tale is told and done.” That is an invitation to the muse.
Then I sat back and these things just poured out in a single sitting and it simply so happened that Jerry was driving to San Francisco that day and came up with the suitable melody for it. He came in to see me at China Camp the subsequent day and I handed him the lyrics, and he stated, “Oh, I’ve got the music.” And he did!
That’s a type of pretty mythological things that occur from time to time. [laughs] There it was. Yes, “Terrapin Station” was magic. I didn’t look after our recording of it because the producer took it into the studio in England by himself and threw all types of lush strings on it. I’ve never been capable of take heed to that with out gritting my tooth, however I really like the music – and the primary time they performed it, Invoice Graham was standing subsequent to me on the aspect of the stage and he looked at me and requested, “You write that?” I stated, “Yeah.” And he nodded and went, “Pretty good.” [laughs] Coming from Bill Graham, that was incredibly high reward.
Why did you stop writing with Bob Weir?
There wasn’t a great shut inter-relationship. It’s not Weir’s fault and I don’t assume it’s my fault both. It just didn’t fairly work. From my perspective, he wasn’t straightforward to work with. We’d write something and then he would need to rewrite it or add strains, which I didn’t look after. Jerry by no means did that. He favored what I gave him, and he did it.
Bob and I each tried exhausting however he didn’t actually care so much for exhausting, elaborate pictures that I utilized in songs. He needed the songs to say one thing easier. He voiced that. I stated, “That’s what everybody writes. My own style is what I write.”
There are some songs that Weir and I did that worked darn nicely: “Playing in the Band,” for example. But we might typically work actually, really exhausting only to have what we did disappear, which was frustrating. Like I keep in mind working for days on a music, after which he didn’t like it and referred to as his pal Barlow in. Barlow wrote the phrases for “Cassidy,” which is a wonderful and basic track, so I had no drawback with him in any respect, however… I feel he found it simpler to work with Barlow, and with my blessing that’s what he did.
How might Jerry be so unhealthy and but be such a street warrior, out on the street with multiple bands? Where did he get that power and drive?
He just liked to play guitar, in the identical means I really like to put in writing. Jerry would have played guitar regardless. He didn’t should be the well-known Jerry Garcia to do it. He might have continued to be unknown perpetually and he would have beloved enjoying that guitar. He beloved to try this as a lot as he hated to write down a music, so I used to be a natural collaborator. [laughs]
Did you ever wish to be a performer with the band?
I had my selection. I had my go at that and it didn’t work for me. We have been doing Aoxomoxoa, and I used to be doing background vocals and stuff like that. We have been recording “China Cat Sunflower” they usually have been doing quite a few takes, and Phil looked at me and stated, “Can you ever sing the same line the same way?” Which is important once you’re recording; there’s an artwork to doing it. And I stated, “You know, I don’t think I can.” [laughs] I simply bowed out. What I did as an alternative was sit and pay attention because the recordings have been taking place and give my opinion on which takes have been good and the sequence of songs and stuff like that. And I named a lot of the albums.
Did you think about your self a member of the Grateful Dead?
Yeah. I used to be a member proper up till the time got here that I used to be making enough money in royalties that I used to be making greater than a number of the members of the band, so I give up. I went off wage, not realizing I was also going off medical insurance and whatever different advantages there were on the time. I used to be truly a bit of an idiot to try this. I decided to only reside off my royalties somewhat than drawing a salary from the Dead. That was the equivalent of quitting, actually. That wasn’t my intention but I didn’t need to create rancor in the band by making extra money than the drummers. Instantly in any case these years the songwriting royalties have been turning into very significant – and that usually causes an eruption of songwriters in a band. [laughs]
And the track that made that happen, in fact, was “Contact Of Gray, “ which you had written years earlier.
I wrote it for a solo album I was working on and had for about six years before the Grateful Dead recorded it. My model, which I had worked out with Jerry and John Khan, was a lot slower. They have been going to help me make an album and “Touch of Grey” was one of many songs, however it didn’t go anyplace. We never even finished the take. Ultimately, Jerry stated, “You know that song of yours, ‘Touch of Grey’? Would you mind if I reset it for the Dead?” and I stated, “No, not at all. Go ahead. I love the lyrics for it.” I did carry out my model for a few years, nevertheless it was a knockout when Jerry was completed with it. Before that, I assumed it was very appealing, however not a knockout.
And it modified every part.
It renovated the Grateful Dead. We have been just about accomplished. The band was nearly broke and there wasn’t sufficient cash coming into the enterprise. Hastily, right here got here “Touch of Grey.” I need to say that I’m glad it didn’t occur earlier because to my mind-set, all the things went wonky after that. I can’t get very specific aside from to say the previous days have been abruptly gone. There was large money on the scene and large money attracts certain varieties of characters. It merely will; that’s no reflection on anyone. It turned an enormous drawback, and writing songs all of a sudden turned an enormous money proposition. Although nothing else ever did what “Touch of Grey” did, that put them again into a reasonably superior place. We have been the highest touring band on the planet for a number of years… or should I say ‘they?’
I feel you’ll be able to say we.
Okay. Thank you.